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Gravel Riding 101: From Gravel Bike Basics to Dirty Kanza

What is gravel riding?

Gravel riding, aka gravel grinding or adventure riding, is an increasingly popular form of cycling that combines elements of road- and mountain-biking, and consisting mostly of distance riding over unpaved roads. Whether dirt roads or gravel roads, trails must consist of non-technical and unsurfaced roads to qualify as gravel riding. Since cities mostly have paved roads for commuters, gravel riding trails are usually located in rural areas. This tends to afford opportunity to discover some incredibly scenic sites that one can only witness during an adventure off the beaten path.

Old wagon trails, forest roads, canal paths, and more can lead to exploring the unexplored. Gravel riding is known for adding an element of thrill and a hint of danger to the cycling experience with its namesake rocky terrain and uneven ground. It takes cycling to the next level and provides riders with exhilarating discoveries. The captivating scenery along the way makes gravel grinding one of the most aesthetically pleasing riding adventures possible.

What are the best types of bikes and gear for gravel?

When choosing gear for gravel riding and racing, it’s important to note that gravel bikes are built specifically for long treks on gravel, but can also double for more conventional riding experiences. When compared to road bikes, gravel bikes typically have more relaxed geometry, wide wheelbase, and more tire clearance. The Raleigh Stuntman is a good example of a sturdy gravel bike that can conquer gravel grinding or traditional road riding.

Surfaces can get pretty jarring when gravel riding, so it’s important to consider components that make the ride as smooth and safe as possible. For this, we recommend the Shockstop Stem. The stem uses elastomers springs to absorb vibrations (so your bones don’t have to) and mute the effects of road bumps and surface imperfections. This shock absorption makes for a great riding experience that can be appreciated in the moment and over time. In addition, stem stiffness is easily adjustable (via swapping elastomers) so everyone can find their optimal setup.

Best gravel riding techniques

  • Remaining seated and planted should always be a priority when riding gravel. You want to make sure that all of the body weight is centered when tackling bumpy terrain. When the going gets a little tougher, don’t get out of the saddle to power through — instead, staying seated and gearing down will help ensure that you are in control over loose terrain by creating higher cadence.

  • Sharp and abrupt turns are no good in any form of cycling, but you especially want to be sure of stable turning when conquering gravel terrain. Sharply turning the handlebars on a turn makes the front wheel more prone to sliding on the gravel. A good way to ensure a smooth turn every time is to gradually shift your weight and direct your hips in the appropriate direction. The most important thing to keep in mind is smooth transitions and gentle leans.

  • It’s helpful to relax and float over rough terrain. Keep the elbows slightly bent and relaxed, and avoid clamping down on the handlebars or instinctively braking. Washboards, or corrugated, rough roads can make you feel like you need to hit the brakes, especially on a descent. But braking can actually encourage the tires to lose contact with the ground, instead of gliding over the rough patches unimpeded.    

  • Always consider the possibility of vehicular traffic, even if the road seems unused. Stay on your side of the road, especially on blind hills and turns.

  • Making sure you’re prepared for the route is one of the most important strategies to a success gravel ride. Always study a map and gain as much knowledge as possible on your planned route.

What’s Dirty Kanza?

Beyond casual gravel riding, the gravel world is becoming increasingly rich with races. Although there is no shortage of epic gravel events, Dirty Kanza consistently proves to be the most anticipated gravel event of the year. Located in Flint Hills, the celebrated race offers great gravel and some of the most unique and aesthetically pleasing vistas around, with the largest source of tallgrass in North America.

When preparing for Dirty Kanza, or any big gravel race, it’s important to consider that the course is remote and there will be times when you ride for hours without access to other riders, food, or water sources. Dirty Kanza is known to be one of the most challenging gravel events, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t go for it, even as a beginner. In fact, riders of all experience levels are encouraged to try it out. There are various levels and lengths that you can opt in and out of to fit your experience and confidence levels. The 100 half-pint is recommended for beginner gravel athletes and lasts about 7 hours on average.

A great way to prepare for beginners and experienced riders is the Dirty Kanza training camp. The camp is available to all registered riders and takes place a few months before the big race. The camp focuses on training the rider’s mind, body, and spirit for the rigor of the race. The camp includes gravel seminars, access to train on Dirty Kanza gravel courses, and consultations with experts.

Gravel racing is just as much about physical preparation as it is about mental preparation. Beginner gravel riders and experts alike can all benefit from reviewing the basics. As you venture deeper into the world of gravel be sure to keep in mind the proper techniques, gravel bikes, and components necessary for the most fulfilling gravel experience. And if you’re tackling Dirty Kanza this year, be sure to remain confident, fueled, and have a blast!

Happy riding!